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The Difference Between Making It In Recovery and Relapsing; What It Takes to Keep Coming Back

January 2020

Grab a cup of coffee for this post.  This is a long one.  Apologies in advance, it took that long to get to the main point.  I couldn’t cut anything without a convolution of the process.

Well, my friends, we’re only a few days out from New Year’s resolutions when everyone and their brother is swearing off alcohol for good… this time.

You’ve said it before, I’ve said it before (more than twenty times, I’d reckon), and we’ve all heard it before.  You probably don’t really believe it when you utter it.  I surely didn’t.  “Hoped”, maybe.  Nor do we believe it, when we hear it said.

What it takes to recover and to stay recovered is very simple, but sadly, exceedingly difficult to maintain.  Note, I chose the word “simple” in lieu of “easy”.  Simple, it is – they fit the instructions on 164 pages of a book.  That’s all it took, 164 pages, plus time and practice, to go from lost cause to happily recovering.  Easy, it isn’t.

Now, to be fair, I only know of one way to recover from addiction.  It’s the “free” way.  I don’t have to pay for professionals to assess my life and tell me what to do.  I can do it myself, with the help of a friend, because honesty takes care of the important stuff – and I’m talking penetrative, deep, dark, scary honesty.  On the plus-side, I only have to worry about me – being honest about how I’m doing.  The way I know is the “whole life” repair kit.  If happiness were measured as wealth is, I’d be the equivalent of living on the ocean in West Palm Beach.  There are other ways for folks to recover, but I’m not familiar with them, so I’ll stay in my lane, as we like to say.

So, there isn’t a lot to making it in recovery, but it’s a bit of a puzzle to make it all work.  The tough part is, each individual makes their own puzzle pieces – it’s up to the individual to make sure they fit together.  Let’s look at my puzzle pieces because I know mine, yours may vary a little bit.

  • I can’t drink successfully.  I’ve tried so many times, so many different ways, so many combinations… I simply suck at living and using at the same time.
  • I can’t use anything else successfully.  Folks, this isn’t rocket science.  If I can’t drink successfully, I can’t smoke dope successfully.  I can’t shoot heroin successfully.  I can’t smoke crack successfully.  Etcetera.
  • Those first two pieces are hugely important, because they form this next piece; I can’t use successfully, so I won’t try.
  • That piece forms the next; I won’t try, I’ll use twelve steps to recover.
  • That forms the next; I’ll put my arrogance aside.  I don’t know what’s best for me.  I’ll take some advice from others who have recovered before me.
  • That forms the next piece; step one…  and so forth, eleven more times.

These are all absolutes.  If I have any doubt in my mind, I need to squash it underneath my heel.  Thoughts will enter the gray matter between my ears that will work against those absolutes.  Those thoughts have no validity anymore.  They must be discarded (this last paragraph is 20-year recovery stuff that you won’t find in the Big Book – taking it to heart early in recovery will be like cheating).

From that point, there are a few simple things that’ll help keep us on the path.  For me, it was reviewing those first four points, but simplified.  See, I asked my Higher Power for a deal the day I quit.  The deal was; God, I can’t do this alone, I need Your help.  If You help me, I’ll give recovery everything I’ve got.

Rather than going through each of the first four points, I often referred back to the deal.  Basically, it’s a Big Book principle; I can’t, You can, I’ll let You.  Simple.

Too often we like to complicate things.  Well, I can’t have a Higher Power because [insert reason/excuse here].  Surely, crack cocaine was my drug of choice, so heroin should be okay, right?  How about meth, maybe?  Of course, that’s not how we justify it, is it?  No, we like to go for “weed” which enjoys the dubious distinction (either ignorant or dishonest, take your pick) of being less damaging and/or addicting to the user.  In the end, though, a drug is a drug and using pot is just as bad as heroin.

The main point about all of this is “keep it simple, stupid”.  Recovery may be hard, but it’s definitely simple.  Making it complex only serves relapse, and making it complex is a choice.  Going back to making our puzzle pieces, the more complex we make the pieces, the harder it is to make them fit together.

So let’s look at how we can beat the penchant for making simple things, complex.  In my case, complex-ing recovery was all about ego. It’s funny how many things fall back to the ego – and I have a perfect example.

I had a problem with doing a Fourth Step.  There were a few things that were going to have to go on that Fourth that I didn’t want to deal with in the Fifth.  For that reason, I created a “problem” with not being done with the Third.  I couldn’t do the Fourth because I wasn’t done with the Third, you see?

Well, that only worked on folks in meetings with fewer than five years of recovery.  The old timers didn’t buy it (correctly), because Step Three is only a decision.  It just so happens that you have to practice continually making the decision.  Anyway, I was called to the mat by a woman whom I trusted implicitly (I also had a mild crush on her, to be honest…).  She gave me the old, “Look, you’ve been working on the Third Step for a month and you still haven’t gotten it?  What’s really the problem?”

And I fessed up.

I didn’t want to do the Fourth because there were things on my Fifth that could have meant a year or few in jail if I made my amends.  That’s why I didn’t want to really complete my Fourth…  And you can bet, that whole episode made my Fourth when I finally did it a week later, after discussing the sordid affair with my sponsor.

The point is, I made the Third Step puzzle piece so complex, it couldn’t fit with the Fourth Step piece.  I almost drank over that mess, too.  See, when you get close to your first year of recovery, many of us get a little squirrely because we come to find that “just being sober” isn’t enough.  We have to free that trainload of baggage we’ve been hauling around, sometimes for decades.  We find we have to work the program in all our affairs.  We don’t necessarily understand what’s happening at the time, but that’s the “why” of it.

In my case, I put my ego (and fear) aside to do what had to be done to be free of my addiction.  I never knew what “freedom” would feel like until I did the Fourth, Fifth, (Sixth, Seventh, Eighth & Ninth) Steps to rid myself of the baggage I’d piled up and had been lugging around.  Without letting go and getting beyond that experience, I’d have been drunk (and I’d likely died long ago, my liver just can’t take anymore poison).  Instead, “I found a new freedom and a new happiness” that I didn’t think was possible.  Just like they promised would happen.

And I stayed recovered.

And I lived happily ever after.

Because I made the puzzle pieces so they fit together.

And that’s how it works.


  1. WVrunnergirl says:

    “Deep, dark, scary honesty” So true and this is what folks don’t what to do, the work. I had someone in my office the other day and happily said she just finished writing her 4th Step. I said how was it “it was good I felt pretty good about it” To which I said then you need to go back and do it again. Now mind you this is a woman who just relapsed a few months ago, not only relapsed. But she was found in her car windows up, during the heatwave last summer, with a BAC 4x the legal limit. The fact she is still alive is clearly a miracle. And she sat in my office smiling telling me how easy it was to do her 4th step. 🤦🏽‍♀️ I’m telling you this post should be an OP Ed but buddy folks would not be happy with the level of honesty it contains about how honesty is required to get and stay sober.

  2. Nelson says:

    Great post. It’s step 9 that scares me….how did you get past that one without going to jail?

    • bgddyjim says:

      Okay, so here’s the trick; my sponsor and I talked about every last detail of what I did. I was open and honest about it, and I was willing to make amends, even if that meant going to jail, to get over it. I wrote everything down on my Fourth, we talked about it in my Fifth, and I was ready to have my shortcomings removed, and I asked for them to be removed. I made my list and made direct amends except where those amends would hurt others. Me going to jail would have hurt others in numerous ways, so we got creative with how my amends were made, with this one catch: If EVER I found that the amend that my sponsor laid out wasn’t enough, if that one thing kept popping up in my thoughts, if I was ever afraid of it coming back around, if there was ANY fear associated with that one item, we would revisit it and decide on further action until I was truly free.

      I never had to go back after making the initial amends for what I’d done. For some sponsors, they can try to be hardasses by saying you need to make direct amends, period, end of story. That’s not how the step reads, though, and that’s certainly not its intent.

      The key is making amends so we don’t have that hanging over our heads anymore. I didn’t have to go to jail, but it was a lot harder than just “forgiving myself” at the same time. “Forgiving myself” wouldn’t have worked anyway, because that’s mostly BS.

      Remember the Third Step Prayer here: God, I offer myself to You. To build with me and do with me as You will. Please relieve me of my difficulties THAT VICTORY OVER THEM WILL BEAR WITNESS TO THOSE I HELP IN YOUR POWER AND YOUR WAY OF LIFE. May I do Your will always.

      I use the victory over that one thing to bear witness to those I’ll help to see God’s Power and way of life, and how that can lead to a happy, peaceful life.

      And I just did it again for you. That’s how it works, brother.

  3. […] The Difference Between Making It In Recovery and Relapsing; What It Takes to Keep Coming Back […]

  4. LovingSummer says:

    I live with someone who will have been dry for 8 years this summer. Reading your in-depth posts on the subject is very insightful. Would you say there’s a problem with not going to AA anymore? I don’t seek to persuade as I had to stop that a long time ago – for both of us – but I don’t know the ropes and would be interested if people think it’s possible to stay dry simply by habit of lifestyle more than keeping yourself stable by attending meetings? Husband used to have a sponsor but he went back to ‘controlled drinking’ which husband recognised was a way of saying he wasn’t staying dry anymore and was trying to convince himself he has control over this. But although husband recognised his sponsor had flare off the wagon, he didn’t seek replacement and stopped going to AA soon after that. He’s managed to stay dry thus far, and it’s been at least 5, if not 6 years since that happened.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences so candidly!

    • bgddyjim says:

      First, you’re welcome. It’s my pleasure to share my experience. Second, thank you for this question and the idea for a really good post that probably needs to be written. I have a friend, as a matter of fact, who hasn’t been to a meeting in 25 years. He’s got 42 or 43 years this year and leads a normal, sober, happy life. For me, I like the continual work in recovery. I’m giving a big talk in front of 30 hardcore addicts and alcoholics in treatment in a month… these things I couldn’t do if I weren’t a part of the fellowship. Almost all of my writing is centered on the 12 steps, even if I don’t let it on. For me, being in the fellowship is how I get to happy. I’ve gone without meetings for a couple of weeks at a stretch and I don’t like me at the end of those stretches. But that’s just me.

      That’s not what you asked, though. Without question, there are those who can get a dose of the program and leave and be perfectly fine. Many find religion, some simply swear off. Others still work the steps but don’t bother with the meetings because something turns them off about going. Whatever the cause and effect, it’s possible to lead a happy life outside of the program.

      The key word there is happy… and therein lies the rub. I can control my drinking like I can control the weather…. and as long as I’m dumb enough to believe there’s hope, there’s no peace and no happiness in my life. There’s no room for that with the obsession to drink.

      Each case has to be individually assessed, and if you’re happy with who you’re with, enjoy your life happily, knowing things are good. Rest easy, there are a number of ways to sober up without going to meetings.

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